During the forty years of the Communist regime, church property was seized by the Czechoslovak state, as it was throughout the Soviet Bloc. In the twelve years since the fall of the totalitarian regime, the return of church property is an issue that has remained unresolved in the Czech Republic, despite numerous attempts. It has also not helped relations with the Catholic Church and in particular the Vatican.
The Czech Republic was the last post-communist country in Central Europe to begin negotiations with the Vatican on a bilateral treaty. But representatives from the Czech Foreign Ministry and the Holy See announced on Tuesday that after eleven rounds of talks, they had hammered out a working version of the treaty that, said Papal Nuncius Giovanni Coppa, both sides are pleased with:
"This has been a long and hard process, and both sides had to make compromises in order to make progress. But I am very happy with the working version we have, and I think we can safely say that our work has been well done."
The treaty now has to be approved by the Czech government and parliament, and by the Holy See before it can be finalised and signed. Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Palous is hopeful that despite past debates, it will be passed in its present form:
"Obviously we have been through all sorts of debates that have to reflect on relations between church and state in today's world. We, I think, will have to defend what we have arrived at in parliament, so the debate will be repeated, on a political level. But my hope is that the text [of the treaty] is consensual, that it should not create big problems and that the debate in parliament will arrive at the right and acceptable conclusions."
The treaty will have no legal bearing on the resolution of outstanding property issues between the Catholic Church and the Czech government, which are being dealt with on a local level with Czech Catholic representatives. But, Martin Palous feels that its symbolic importance should not be underestimated:
"I don't think the world will be different the day after the treaty comes into force, but treaties are still important. They set the basic rules of the game. They clarify questions that might sometimes be confusing. So now we have a basic map and maps are always important."
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